Fielding's furtive turnaround

Opinion Article

2011 May, 14

Families First (but Aboriginal Families Last). We didn't know about the hidden codicil until 24 hours  before Steve Fielding told the Senate he had reversed his support for Tony Abbott's wild rivers bill  debated on Thursday.  

On June 22 last year Fielding voted for the bill that passed the Senate with the support of the opposition and independent Nick Xenaphon. This week's turnaround was a complete 180 degrees. Until  this week the question was not what would happen with the bill in the Senate. The issue was whether  the independents in the House of Representatives would support it.  

With Bob Katter a steadfast advocate for the law, it really came down to Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott  and Andrew Wilkie.  

No one on our side had any inkling Fielding had any problems with the bill he supported last year. He  never sought any explanations or answers from anyone who supported the bill. As far as everyone  knew, Fielding was in favour.  

Less than 24 hours before Thursday's debate we heard the shocking news that Fielding had been on a  secret trip to Cape York in company with Labor Senator Mark Furner from Queensland. What? He  travelled up north and did not speak with any of the organisations and communities that had been  campaigning against the Queensland laws?  

From information we could glean, Fielding visited the property purchased by the commonwealth government and given to Australia Zoo on western Cape York. We know he visited an outstation occupied by a family that is on record as supporting wild rivers and allied with the Wilderness Society. He startled senatorial colleagues with his confession, whispered just 48 hours before the bill was  debated in the Senate.  

But Fielding never visited any communities affected by wild rivers along the Lockhart, Stewart and  Archer rivers, the people most affected by the laws.  

While Fielding had failed to talk to Cape York organisations and communities, he told representatives  he had been briefed by Queensland and commonwealth government officials. But he has not replied to  any letters sent by Cape York leaders on behalf of traditional owners inviting him to visit the Cape and  to talk with those affected landowners.  

Of course, once we heard Fielding travelled quietly to the Cape, hand-in-hand with Furner, and had not given a hearing to both sides of the argument, we feared the worst. And so it turned out.

In all the mountains of submissions and hours of debate, the Anglican diocese of Brisbane has produced the most rigorous legal and economic analysis of the wild river laws. You don't have to believe what I say or anyone from my side of the argument says. Just read the Anglican analysis. It is the most objective assessment of the issues at the heart of this debate. It comes down against the laws.  

If Fielding read the analysis as he claims to have, I fail to see how he could take the position he is now  taking.  

Learning that Fielding may be preparing without warning or consultation with anyone other than a  hand-picked handful of wild rivers supporters on western Cape York, a delegation from Cape York sought a meeting with Fielding on Wednesday. In attendance were ladies from Aurukun and Lockhart  River, two communities affected by the first round of wild river declarations. If they were not  Aboriginal these old-style mission ladies would have been prime candidates for supporters of Family  First. But their entreaties fell on deaf ears. It beggars belief that Fielding would side with the ecoreligionist, anti-development crusaders of the inner cities against Aboriginal families desperately trying  to build a future for their children in the hard scrabble of remote Australia.

Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin, who knows the truth about the Queensland laws  and vainly attempted to get Premier Anna Bligh to see sense last year, praised Fielding for turning his  back on the principled stand he took last year in support of Aboriginal landowners. The politics may  suit Macklin, but the costs Aboriginal communities will bear in the long term will be horrendous. Our  very viability in the long term is at stake here. Let me explain why.  

Recently ABC1's Four Corners screened a retrospective on Aurukun. The program revisited its first  story in 1978, when Aurukun was still a mission and being taken over the Joh Bjelke-Petersen  government. The most poignant image for me was the sight of old Alfred Taisman brandishing his knives in front of the butcher's shop, an enterprise that flourished in the mission days but then died when community development employment projects and welfare sit-down money became the new way  of life at Aurukun. There has not been a butcher's shop since.  

In 1990 journalist David Marr exposed the horrors of the grog chaos engulfing Aurukun following the  forced opening of the tavern five years earlier. His report, Six-Pack Politics, is one of the milestone of  television current affairs.  

The Queensland government's determination to push grog into Aurukun against the pleas of the women  and community leaders became apparent following the 1978 takeover. By the time of Marr's report the  government had forced Aurukun to open a grog outlet. The suffering was well under way and continued unabated except the last five of the past 20 years. The homicides and suicides came after the tavern opened.  

This year's Four Corners report by Matt Carney gave grounds for optimism for the future of Aurukun.  Alcohol restrictions and welfare reforms are showing dividends. There is leadership in the community,  energy and hope.

In the wake of the Four Corners report I received many messages of goodwill from Australians of all  walks of life, black and white. It underlined how much support there is from ordinary people for Aboriginal progress. Australians desire a better and happier life for the children of places such as  Aurukun. But I was left forlorn.  

I was forlorn because I knew the progress that Aurukun was making was really still a process of recovery. It is on the road to recovering the ground it lost in the 25 years since the Queensland government inflicted grog on its people against their will.  

National Party minister Russ Hinze and the Queensland government inflicted a great violence upon that  community.  

It resulted in deaths from suicide and homicide and an epidemic of violence, abuse and neglect. This  legacy is still with the Aurukun people. The costs of bad policy last decades.  

With wild rivers the Queensland Labor government is inflicting another great violence on the same  community and other communities across the Cape. Bligh has never intended this effect, the same way  Hinze never intended the people of Aurukun to suffer as they did because of his insistence they should be able to drink grog as did other Queenslanders.  

Bligh may not intend it, but this will be effect. The Aboriginal people of Cape York will be counting  the costs long after she has gone.  

Fielding voted for Abbott's bill last year and this week changed his position.  

What happened between then and now that could possibly explain Fielding's egregious action?  

Last year's federal election is what happened. When Fielding voted in favour of the private member's  bill last year, he was upholding the stated values of Family First: a party standing for the sanctity of the family unit, independent enterprise, small business. He told voters that defending the rights of  communities to have an economic base for job creation was core to his party's values.

Having failed to secure another term at the election, Fielding became vulnerable to political opportunism. Just weeks before leaving parliament he has shown that his party should have properly  been named Fielding First, because a party claiming families as its first priority could not morally leave  Aboriginal families last.

Fielding's furtive turnaround